Western animation relies on a wide variety of tropes. Some are completely harmless.
Others are incredibly problematic.
Today we’re unpacking the boy-crazed trait often involuntarily assigned to female characters.
A huge issue with the boy-obsessed girl trope is that it’s not often treated as a minor characteristic; instead, it’s typically a defining element of their personalities.
Western animation seems to carry the impression that young females are constantly engaged in high/middle-school crushes—and in many cases it can be quite humorous. But more importantly it begs the question of:
Where are the girl-crazed boys?
Let’s start off by looking at Disney Channel’s longest-aired television program, and one of my personal favorite cartoons, Phineas and Ferb. This series stars two young boys who decide that they want to create the most spontaneous summer ever by building daily wild contraptions. The series was quite male-led, which was obvious in its premise. And adding to the heteronormative perspective from which its story is told, the two most significant female characters, Candace Flynn-Fletcher and Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, are majorly defined by their crushes on specified male characters.
Many of Isabella’s plot points, for example, surround her feelings towards Phineas. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it was a quality mentioned in passing; however, it’s treated by the writers as one of her defining characteristics.
Candace, on the other hand, is a special case. Even upon dating the guy she previously has an obsessive and from-afar crush on, Jeremy Johnston, she still maintains her boy-crazy behaviour towards him. Her stalker-like tendencies has her constantly keeping tabs on him and melo-dramatically respondingover his prominently normal behaviour. Many of the scenes featuring Candace—whenever she’s not trying to get her brothers in trouble—involve her attempting to decipher the painstakingly–clear behaviour of her current boyfriend. This portrays her as completely insecure, irrational, and even somewhat insane.
Don’t get me wrong, Candace is a gem of hilarity in the world of modern-day animated characters; however the pattern of boy-obsessed female characters is long-lived, and should be discussed from a critical perspective.
A similar dynamic is featured with Marinette Dupain-Cheng towards Adrien Agreste in the widely popular series Miraculous Ladybug. Marinette is known to have admirable traits (kindness, warmth, bravery, etc.), and despite being an animated character, many fans refer to her as an excellent role model to young girls. However her behavior towards her crush, similar to Candace’s, is stalker-like and obsessive.
The series features a set of superheroes—one being Marinette—and their endeavours in guarding Paris from dark magic. As a superheroine and a role model, being boy-obsessed is not exactly a prime quality that comes to mind.
Aside from plastering photos of Adrien all over her bedroom walls, she also has a pull-down version of his schedule. Although these features are emphasized for the sake of humor, they still feed into a specific portrayal of how young females behave when it comes to boys their age.
Mabel Pines of Gravity Falls,
Tina Belcher of Bob’s Burgers,
Clover of Totally Spies,
The list goes on.
All of these female characters are boy-crazed to a large degree—so much that it’s one of the central traits that drive each of their personalities.
Male characters who are deeply infatuated with female characters are already less of a commonality; but watching an animated girl-crazed boy go about his borderline-obsessive behaviour is a rarity.
Think about it, could you picture a male character completely drooling over a female? Could you picture him dropping everything he’s doing just to be in the same vicinity as the girl he likes? Or having her weekly schedule in pull-down form? Note that this portrayal would open a whole different can of worms, one that we’ll discuss another day.
The answer is, probably not. Because it would mean a male subjecting himself to a female, allowing her presence to make him lose all sense of rationality. Portraying a male character behaving this way is not very masculine.
But why exactly is this an issue? All of these examples are just of harmless animated shows, right?
Yes, Western animation is generally not meant to be taken too seriously, but it typically carries impactful messages—especially towards young viewers who typically make up its majority audience. Crushes, especially from afar, emit a very specific power dynamic: The person being crushed on is seen as having more desirable traits than the person that is doing the crushing—who is often portrayed as a relatively socially-weaker character of the two.
In having females prominently crushing over males, their relationship mirrors a very male-dominant power dynamic.
Western animation loves to dramatize. Exaggeration has been a stand-out factor of cartoons for as long as they’ve been created. So exaggerated boy-crush behaviors only emphasize the power difference between the two genders. Additionally, boy-crazed characters are often portrayed as irrational as a result of their crush. They tend to lose control and end up either embarrassing themselves or somehow getting into some form of trouble, arguably reducing their power status.
And what’s really bothersome is the fact that a female character’s crush on a male is implicitly promoted as a redeeming female quality. It’s commonly passed off as part of what makes them endearing or comedic.
This is not only an issue inherent in Western animation tropes, but reflects wider issues in the entertainment industry as a whole: Men are much more prominent in creative decision-making positions than woman.
As mentioned in my very first blog post, Star vs. the Forces of Evil’s creator Daron Nefcy is only the second woman to create a television program in Disney Television Animation’s history. Considering that this production company has created over 50 original series, the ratio of male-to-female creators is very disheartening, and definitely shows in the perspective that these stories are told from.
So, the boy-crazed girl trope is rooted in much deeper societal issues (so deep that it would be exhausting to discuss in a single post). And although it’s definitely not the case for all animated female characters, there is a trend that has yet to be diluted over the past few decades (Helga’s Arnold shrine anyone?).
We can only hope that with successful female creators on the rise (Daron Nefcy and Rebecca Sugar), more favorable characterizations of redeeming female qualities will be explored in Western animation.
So far, the new wave of female perspectives is looking pretty promising—but this topic is for another day.